How #FSUTwitter and other rabid fan bases become so vicious

The subject of fan behavior has become a fascinating topic in recent years, especially with the growth of social media. #FSUTwitter became the face of all this in the past year-plus. My colleague Teddy Mitrosilis raised an interesting point the other day when it comes to how law enforcement publicly addresses cases dealing with athletes, which plays into how overzealous fans can be. This month, Justine Gubar, a four-time Emmy award-winning investigative journalist at ESPN, published a book that examines fan behavior from many angles called, "Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan." (Full disclosure: Gubar and I worked together at ESPN.) 

In this Q&A, we discuss, among other things, where the idea for the book came from; the role the local media can play in spurring on behavior; and the most appalling thing she learned about online fanaticism while working on the book.

Q: I understand your experiences pursuing a story about Ohio State led to the idea for this book. What was the backstory there?

Gubar: Back in 2011, I spent several weeks in Columbus covering tattoo-gate and its aftermath –€“ Jim Tressel’s resignation and Terrelle Pryor’s departure from the team –€“ for ESPN. Buckeye fans weren’t pleased and started sending me nasty messages on Facebook and Twitter. At home, I had to get a new phone number thanks to a stream of vitriolic voice mails. The onslaught of verbal sludge got me wondering what was it about sports and some sports fans that could breed such ugly, unseemly behavior. I mulled over this fundamental and vast question for some time and the quest to answer this eventually turned into my first book, "Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan."

Q: One thing I’ve noticed a lot online is college sports fans will believe the worst about every other team or coach yet when it comes to their own programs they not only will give them the benefit of the doubt but will condone some pretty awful behavior. What are some of the worst examples you’ve found of this?

Gubar: That phenomenon — often known as bracketed morality –€“ is widespread. We saw it with some Pete Rose fans last week. I’ve seen college fans lambast other schools for rioting, burning things and tipping cars after a big game yet that same fan base has a similar history.

Q: How much do you think social media changed the game when it comes to such vile behavior having new outlets but also kind of creating a breeding ground for it since it takes on a strength-in-numbers kind of vibe?

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

Gubar: In "Fanaticus," I interview a psychologist whose research shows we are more likely to take action associated with negative emotions. Social media certainly makes it more convenient for fans to express this negativity and lash out directly at people they don’t know and feel like there are no repercussions. Twitter, for one, realizes this. Earlier this year, their former CEO admitted to employees that "we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls." To combat this, the company says they’ve increased staff to handle abuse reports and instituted more filtering in an effort to clean up the platform.

Q: From your research, how much of a role, if any at all, does local media (which I realize often is in a tricky spot covering a powerhouse program) play in spurring behavior that I suspect could be categorized as a form of bullying?

Gubar: It was local media that fomented my bullying by some Ohio State fans. A Columbus radio show host told listeners it was time for me to leave town. There apparently was a discussion about sending flowers and chocolate to my hotel to convince me to leave. I didn’t get any flowers or chocolate and had to check out and register under an assumed name. (Feel free to tweet any guesses as to what name I used to @justinegub. First to figure it out gets a free copy of "Fanaticus." Hatred gets blocked and reported.)

Q: Are there certain fan bases that are likely to be more aggressive and ugly than others? And does that just come back to which have the biggest fan bases or have you found it not to correlate?

Gubar: Experts who study fan behavior call the phenomenon "team identification." The more you psychologically identify with your favorite team, the more you are willing to act out in bizarre and sometimes abusive behavior. I would say the more avid the fan base, the more of a chance for ugliness. Large is certainly one measure of avidity. Activity online would be another. A team’s on-the-field success is probably another.

Q: What’s the most appalling thing you learned about online fanaticism while working on your book?

CONFERENCE TITLE ODDS

Gubar: The graphic rape and death threats uniquely experienced by women. Fans go after women in really disturbing ways. The OSU fans were angry about the stories I was pursuing yet they uniformly singled out my appearance in their insults. I’m not sure what one had to do with another. Look at the hideous reaction directed at movie star and Kentucky hoops fan Ashley Judd for comments she made during this year’s NCAA Final Four tournament. Read what Judd had to say about her experience here.  

Q: Last year there was a lot of talk about #FSUTwitter and its role in trying to deter media from how it covered the Seminoles’ off-field issues. How closely did you follow FSU Twitter’s response to the Jameis Winston coverage? What was your reaction?

Gubar: I saw several of my ESPN colleagues as well as journalists from other entities endure heavy harassment for their reporting. I guess I was sort of amused because I don’t know many journalists who would back down from their reporting because of anonymous strangers lobbing childish insults at them. Yes, the trolling is disturbing and it can be a burden to put in the effort to avoid the stream of nastiness, but often the defensiveness of fans is a telltale sign for reporters that this is a story that needs to be followed up on.

Q: What would your message be to any fan base that is known to be vicious online?  

Gubar: Seriously, I would ask them how they would feel if their son, daughter, spouse, mom or dad was being trolled online in the same way. 

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.

ACC QB RANKINGS

TOP 25 COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACHES